Hiking Calamities: How to Avoid Them…and How to Handle Them

A long time ago, in a galaxy not so far away, I used to get paid to hike.

For over a decade, I was a professional biologist who spent a buttload of time in the field. I searched for plants. I collected data on plants. I collected plant samples and took them back to the lab for analysis.

And I hiked. Oh, sister, did I ever hike! Desert sands, temperate rain forests, high mountain slopes and lowland agricultural field sites: I hiked them all.

And the weather?! Whether it was pouring rain, drifting snow, or a skin-scorching 114 F, I was out in it. After all, data waits for no man…or woman, for that matter.

Needless to say, I picked up a few—well, quite a bit more than a few—tips and techniques for making life both comfortable and safe on the trail. It wasn’t only a matter of survival; it was also a matter of ensuring my sanity! Hiking recreationally is super-cool, but when you become a hiking professional…well, let’s just say you want to make your “office” as pleasant as possible. 🙂

In today’s blog, I’ll be sharing a few of the more common calamities you’re likely to face on a typical hiking excursion. Of course the best defense is a good offense, so for each topic, I’ll discuss ways to avoid the issue in the first place. But when the best laid plans are still thwarted—or for when you just forget to be preemptive—well, I’ve got some remedies lined up for you, as well.

Sock foot heel blister

Looks like someone forgot to tape up!

Ugh, is there anything more annoying than the unexpected hotspot on your foot?? I swear, I feel like the Princess and the Pea whenever anything is even remotely uncomfortable inside my hiking shoe.

Be proactive
The most obvious strategy is to make sure you only wear well-broken-in footwear and appropriate socks. A 7-mile hike is NOT the time to break in your new Asolo boots!

Another favorite trick people use is to wear two sock layers. The first layer is a very thin liner sock, and the second layer is a regular hiking sock. The idea is, any rubbing done by the boot will transfer its friction to the outer sock, but then the outer sock will just glide over the thin liner, leaving your skin unchaffed.

sports tape athletic hiking blister prevention first aid

Fake callous to the rescue!

My personal go-to for every hike longer than a few miles is to use athletic tape (the white stuff that you see on football players’ ankles) to preemptively address known potential hotspots on my feet. Basically, the tape is acting like a fake callous. If your boot rubs those areas, the friction never actually touches your skin. My personal hot zones are the Achilles tendon, the sides of my little toes, and the joint where the metatarsals meet the phalanges. Your areas may differ, but if you know you’re prone to blisters in certain spots, tape up before you even begin your outing. Trust me: this is a way better and more durable solution than moleskin!

Uh oh: time to be reactive
So you didn’t follow Mrs. Starmer’s advice and ended up with a blister. Ouch.

Now, I AM NOT A DOCTOR. I am not in any way part of the medical profession. So what I’m about to share is strictly how I have handled my own blister issues when a brand new hotspot crops up that I didn’t know needed tape beforehand. Following my advice is at your own risk, m’kay? With that out of the way, here’s what I do to deal with a blister:

  1. Use an alcohol swab to clean your fingers, the blister, and the tip of a sharp needle.
  2. Carefully prick the blister in one tiny area and, using a sterile piece of gauze, gently squeeze out the fluid.
  3. Alcohol the blister area again, and then dab on a bit of Neosporin at the point where the blister was pierced.
  4. Put a sterile adhesive strip (Band-aid) over the blister.
  5. Cover the Band-aid with a double-layer of athletic tape.
Deer tick lyme hiking

A face not even a mother could love…unless she happened to be an entomologist.


Rocky Mountain spotted fever. Lyme disease. Just general nastiness. Yeah, I know ticks are a valuable part of our ecosystems, but still, I don’t want one using me for a snack.

Be proactive
Long pants. Long pants. Long pants. Have I mentioned long pants? WEAR ‘EM!

Ladies, you are the biggest offenders in this area, but I’ve seen a fair amount of dudes showing leg on the trail, too.

I know you want to look sexy. I know you want to get a tan. But damn, save those togs for the beach party! 😉

Ticks hitch rides on critters like deer and then slough off onto knee-high grasses and shrubbery. There, they climb up to the top of the plant and wave their little arms (it’s true!), waiting for their next host.

When you cruise on by in your short shorts, it’s no sweat for a tick to jump onto your bare skin….and burrow in. Blech!

If you’re going to be in an area known for tick issues, go the extra mile and tuck your pants into the top of your socks. Yeah, it’s the opposite of sexy, but then again, so is Lyme disease.

Hiking boot sock pants tick prevention lyme safety

“I’m sexy and I know it!”

If you want to be triple-safe, you can pre-coat your clothing with permethrin. This is a spray-on treatment (you can also buy clothes that are pre-treated with it). You let it dry for a day or more, then wear it into the woods. Ticks that touch it die on contact; I’ve seen it in action. It’s supposedly safe for humans, but given how it instantly kills bugs, I only use it when I’m in a high-hazard area.

Uh oh: time to be reactive
So you finished your hike, and during your pre-shower tick inspection, you discovered—gross!—an engorged beastie in your scalp! What to do??

Again, I AM NOT A DOCTOR. And thank gawd I’ve never had to deal with this myself (thank you, totally unsexy hiking attire). But from research I’ve done, this is the standard approach:

  1. Using sterile tweezers, grasp the tick as close to your skin as you can and gently tug. In theory, the tick will let go and you can extract it intact.
  2. If any mouth or head parts are inadvertently broken off, try to remove them with the tweezers. If you can’t get them all out, then just leave the area alone.
  3. Drop the tick into a vial of alcohol and seal it tightly. Save it in case you need to have it tested for Lyme disease.
  4. Thoroughly clean the skin wound, your hands, and the tweezers with alcohol.
  5. Monitor the area for a few weeks and watch for the development of a rash anywhere on your body. If you get one, get to a doctor pronto, and take your tick sample. Do the same if you develop a fever or unexplained achiness. Most ticks are disease-free, but if you do get unlucky, early treatment with antibiotics will fix you right up.
Poison oak toxicodendron diversilobum

Poison Oak. Learn it. Know it. Avoid it.

Poison Oak/Ivy/Sumac

They can be green and gorgeous. They can be deep red and gorgeous. They can be a shrub, vine, or tree…and gorgeous. But in addition to their beauty, poison oak, poison ivy, and poison sumac have one other commonality: urushiol. Urushiol is the oil that causes the skin to develop the itchy, weepy rash that is the hallmark of contact with one of these plants.

Be proactive
Learn to identify the local plants that may cause you grief. In addition to the oak, ivy, and sumac, this includes things like stinging nettle. If you can spot them, you can step around them or find another route.

poison ivy leaf

Poison ivy. Avoid this sucker, too.

Long pants and sleeves are also helpful here. If you’re out for a day hike and know you’ll be returning to a locale with laundry facilities, you can bag any contaminated clothing at the end of the day and run it through a hot, soapy wash.

Some people swear by products like IvyBlock or IvyX. These are lotions that you smear on your skin before heading out on your hike, and they essentially dry to a thin, flexible plastic barrier. It’s like wearing pants and long sleeves, only you get to retain that sexy skin exposure…if looking like you’ve wrapped your arms and legs in Saran wrap can be considered sexy.

Uh oh: time to be reactive
This is another hiking hazard that I’ve been blessed to avoid. Somewhere between 15 and 25{5b94df0808d5051ae4460ba229ec68b809d99f898aebd4fa5019c7ba642362c2} of the population doesn’t react to urushiol, but I like to think I’m just a freaking plant identification NINJA who manages to avoid contact with unwanted nasties.

poison sumac

…and this is poison sumac. Yeah, don’t touch it.

Also…I use Tecnu. If there is even any chance I’ve brushed up against poison oak, this magical soap takes the urushiol right off. It doesn’t actually foam, but you squirt the liquid on your dry skin, rub in in for a few minutes, and then rinse (or wipe off with a damp cloth if you’re in the backcountry).

You have at least 8 hours (some resources say you have 24) to remove the urushiol before your skin reacts, so as long as you take care of business promptly at the end of your hiking day, you should be golden.

* * * * *

I’ve touched on this topic in the above article, but I’ve gotta give it special focus before I sign off: when you head off on an outdoor adventure, dress appropriately.

<Stands on soapbox>

Always wear some sort of head covering. If it’s going to be sunny, make sure you’re wearing a broad-brimmed hat for extra protection. If it’s chilly, throw on a ski cap. Even if it’s NOT going to be cold, you never know when you’ll be stuck out overnight, so chuck that ski cap into your pack just in case.

Cover your legs. Cover your arms. Wear decent shoes. Seriously, I cannot tell you how many women I see on remote trails in California who look like they’re headed to a spin class instead of seven miles in the backcountry. And yeah, in 90{5b94df0808d5051ae4460ba229ec68b809d99f898aebd4fa5019c7ba642362c2} of the cases–on a short hike near an urban area–stretchy black capris, tennies, and a lycra sports bra will be fine…but for gawd’s sake, at least carry a daypack with a jacket. Play the odds. Don’t let that 10{5b94df0808d5051ae4460ba229ec68b809d99f898aebd4fa5019c7ba642362c2} case sneak up on you so that we have to read about you in the morning papers.

<Steps off soapbox and stows it away until future need arises>

That said, GET OUTSIDE! HAVE FUN! Yeah, Mama Nature can throw some curve balls your way, but that’s part of the reason she’s so awesome. And by using the tips in this article, you can start to tango with Her in perfect rhythm rather than step all over each other’s toes.

Want to learn even more about keeping yourself safe?
Download my free “Emergency Preparedness for Women” guide

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